Neurodiversity is not a new term, nor is it a new concept. The term was coined in the 1990s by sociologist Judy Singer to bring awareness and more acceptance to those with neurological differences. Today, the term is widely used in schools, corporations, and many other industries that are making sure that their inclusivity initiatives involve a greater understanding and awareness of the brain.
What does this mean for retail?
Stores, hotels, offices, and other spaces set off triggers every day to people without sensitivities in many ways. A scent or smell in a shop may make an environment too uncomfortable; a store’s music may be playing at too high a volume; screens and lights may serve up too many stimuli. For someone who is neurodivergent, such as someone with autism or ADHD, all of these factors can be completely overwhelming. How the brain perceives aesthetic experiences is different for everyone; the neurodivergent brain processes spaces differently. According to the British Medical Bulletin, one in five people classify as neurodivergent.
There is an incredible opportunity to look at how a space could feel more welcoming for all, or neuroinclusive. This doesn’t have to involve massive change but small shifts in understanding the sound, the temperature, the light, the textures, and olfactory as well as visual cues for any given location. Biophilic design plays a big part in this sense of comfort and ease for shoppers, as well as for employees. Taking cues from nature and bringing that indoors is beneficial to all. Emilie Hoyt, CEO of Lather, says, “Anytime that you can stimulate the senses with fresh breezy air (we focus on having large windows and doors open), aromas of plant based essential oils, and the visuals of plants that there is something that intrinsically calms and resets our minds and whether or not the individual consciously is aware of it, they know that they feel good.”
Stores with biophilic design can be spotted everywhere, from shoe brands to car dealerships, and of course in beauty and wellness. Many people will see plants or more nature visuals, but most don’t know how the core tenants of biophilic design are about human health and wellbeing. Studies around spaces with biophilic design have been going on for decades but a real explosion has taken place over the past five years with so much more awareness on nature and the human body and brain. A study by the team at sustainability consulting firm Terrapin Bright Green showed that there is an increase in the value of goods sold in greener areas versus retail locations that are devoid of nature. When shown images of greener retail settings, respondents indicated that an acceptable price to pay was 20% higher for an item in convenient shopping (such as a sandwich for lunch); 25% higher for general shopping (like a new jacket or watch); and 15% more for specialty shopping (such as a gift for a family member). The addition of plant life into the realm of retail shopping appears to act as a stimulus that boosts the image perception and economic viability of stores.
Clean beauty retailer Credo Beauty, for example, uses lots of natural wood in its store interior design and maximizes as much daylight as possible via expansive windows in all locations. “We wanted a familiar look and feel with the sense of positivity and not a feeling of sacrifice to use products that are good for you,” says Annie Jackson, co-founder and CCO of Credo Beauty.
Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, Director of the Center for Neuroaesthetics at University of Pennsylvania, and author of “The Aesthetic Brain” shares, “In our research, we find that most people have three core neural and psychological responses to the built environment. These are Coherence, how organized and legible is a space; Fascination, how informationally rich a space is and whether one wishes to explore it; and Hominess, how comfortable and relaxed does a person feel in the space. Our research shows that people on the autism spectrum do not respond to fascination in the same way as neurotypical people. We suspect that such environments are overwhelming for them. The general point is that the design of commercial spaces or even parts of those spaces might need to be modified to be inviting for different kinds of people.”
Two other experience-based retailers have created specific time slots during operating hours dedicated to those who need softer sensory exposure. Camp, a retailer stocking kids’ toys and activities, has set aside specific hours for what they call, “Sensory Friendly Time.” During these hours guests aged 3 years old and up can enjoy the space with a limited number of guests, dimmer lights, and softer sounds. Additional sensory tools are available, such as earmuffs (to stifle noise) and sunglasses (to soften lights). Sloomoo Institute, a playspace for children feature brightly colored slime, offers “sensory hours” every month. Like Camp, these hours offer a limited guest capacity, reduced noise, and more mindful activations. They even have an installation called Lake Sloomoo for barefoot play (lots of sensory-sensitive kids prefer not to wear shoes) and “synthesoothers” that emit soothing sounds.
With the desire for more in-person experiences, we are just beginning to see the creation of places and spaces for human flourishing and well-being. There is still so much to be done and so much opportunity ahead for all. Education on why it is so important to initiate change in the future of retail now is the key to how to build and create for the future.